Tuesday, November 24, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 8: Winding up for the Wedding

Our last day in Manila before departing for Sumilon was primarily a family affair. We had contemplated checking out the Binondo and Quiapo districts (Manila’s Chinatown) early in the morning, but Ben told us there wouldn’t be anything happening there on a Sunday morning, except in the churches and they would be packed. So we just waited until 11 when Ben, Raine and his daughter Alison and her fiancĂ© Levi (who had just flown in the night before) picked us up and took us to lunch at (where else?) a mall.

I had to admit, the Greenbelt mall (so called because they had a small area with trees and plants surrounded by six separate, huge malls) had ours beat by a mile. The thing was HUGE – six malls of four floors each – and very fancy. We had a really tasty lunch at an upscale restaurant that served classed Filipino cuisine, and Ben and Raine made sure we covered all the bases in terms of getting all the traditional dishes. I’ve been trying to eat native dishes wherever we go, but the quality has been really hit-or-miss. This was the best so far – tilapia braised in a honey marinade, super-garlicky pork adobo, a fish stew, sweet and spicy calamari, shrimp and vegetables in a coconut curry, and a deep-fried pork that was a bit intimidating (I normally avoid red meat, but made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t turn anything down while I’m here. Including balut (fertilized duck egg, a local delicacy), which I’m hoping nobody offers me.

After lunch, we wandered around the mall so that Alison could find some shoes to match her bridesmaid’s dress. Half of one floor was devoted entirely to luxury watchmakers. Gigantic photos of sour-faced, half-naked, anorexic women in weird makeup and weirder clothing glowered down at us from the high-fashion shop windows. Air-conditioning blasted us with frigid air while big doors stood open to the outside. I was in heaven.

Alison finally found a pair of shoes she liked (and could afford), and Rebecca and Dana got some, too. By this time Alison and Levi were feeling the effects of the jet-lag, so we went back to the hotel where they could take a small nap before we headed off to the rehearsal dinner.

While they slept, Ben and I went across the street to get some coffee. I like Ben, but I find him an interesting character. He likes to take up a lot of space, both physically (he’s as tall as I am) and psychically. He speaks to friends and fellow Americans with a boisterous southern geniality that makes him easy to like, but adds a tone of sharp command when speaking to waiters and staff that shocks my liberal Bay Area sensibilities.

After a brief rest, we were off to the wedding rehearsal dinner. I was excited, as this would be my only chance to experience Filipino home life. The dinner was hosted by a cousin of Raine’s (she seems to have an endless supply of cousins) in a very affluent suburb of Manila. From the street, the neighborhood didn’t seem too different from an American one, but it was very different inside. From the Audi TT and Acura parked in the driveway, it was clear we were in a home with a lot of money, but architecturally speaking it was surprisingly bland. The rooms were a simple series of boxes, each with a different linoleum or concrete or tile-patterned floor. We were introduced to a dizzying array of friends and relatives, all of whose names we promptly forgot. Unfailingly friendly and polite, they nonetheless didn’t know quite what to do with us, so sat us at a table off to the side with glasses of super-sweet orange soda.

The dinner, which I had been looking forward to with great curiosity, was something of a letdown. There was a LOT of food, and I took a little bit of everything, but none of it was particularly good. Particularly noteworthy was the mystery meat (probably pork) casserole in a sauce that tasted of cream of mushroom soup and instant coffee. The chocolate cake, however, was excellent. During dinner, we all watched the last quarter of a college basketball game between the two big rival schools in Manila.

The rehearsal itself was a casual, rushed affair, orchestrated by a stylish gay man with poofy bleached hair, granny glasses and zippers on the backs of his pantlegs (it would appear the predisposition of gay men towards wedding planning is an international phenomenon). The script for the wedding was in thick purple folders for everyone to review, and they’ve got all the bells and whistles planned. Unity candle, unity bouquet, unity wine ceremonies combined with three or four readings, a song from Phantom of the Opera and the vows themselves, the ceremony is scheduled to take an hour, but I have my doubts. It’s a very nontraditional ceremony for the Philippines, which is fully 90% Catholic. Raine seemed to be annoyed that people were not taking the rehearsal very seriously. She has clearly put a great deal of effort into planning this thing (the script is extraordinarily detailed), and Ben tells us she badly wants it all to be perfect. When the day itself comes, I really hope they’re both able to let all the expectations go and just enjoy themselves, so they don’t get caught up in a cycle of disappointment over all the things that will inevitably go wrong.

By the time the rehearsal was over, it was getting late. Alison and Levi were barely coherent, and we had to get back to the hotel and get ready to leave at 4:30 the next morning. We said our goodbyes to the nameless smiling faces of the party and went back to the hotel with Mel at the wheel, careening wildly through the streets with horn blazing in the face of drivers who refuse to turn on their headlights at night for fear of wearing out the bulb.

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